Framing and the Facts

March 2, 2010 Julie Fisher-Rowe

Insights from The Opportunity Agenda

Using values to communicate is smart strategy, but it’s also the right thing to do. Talking about values recognizes that what binds us together is stronger than what divides us. Here at The Opportunity Agenda, we talk a lot about values and the importance of building communications around them. In fact, we built a whole organization around six core values that drive our work and the way we talk about it. We do this, of course, because these values matter to us. Seeing them realized and supported are central to our goals.


It can be tempting to use a “just the facts, ma’am” approach, focusing on policy or procedural details. If only people knew what we know, then they would agree with us. We fear that when we talk about values, we’ll be accused of bias or of being unserious.

Leading with values is a savvy communications strategy.

But as NPR explained recently, leading with values is a savvy communications strategy. In a story on people's beliefs about climate change, reporter Christopher Joyce describes findings from Yale's Cultural Cognition Project that people form their views about climate change, among other things, based more on their existing worldview - and values - than on the facts presented to them.

"Basically the reason that people react in a close-minded way to information is that the implications of it threaten their values," says Dan Kahan, a law professor at Yale University and a member of The Cultural Cognition Project. Kahan says people test new information against their preexisting view of how the world should work."

"If the implication, the outcome, can affirm your values, you think about it in a much more open-minded way," he says. And if the information doesn't, you tend to reject it.

Meg Bostrom describes this same phenomenon in an article for Frameworks Institute, "When the Facts Don't Fit the Frame," which looks at several studies on how people interpret facts. Basically, we rely on our personal experience and our values to make sense of facts. Facts alone don't convince. As mentioned above, we're such great rationalizers that we will actually discard facts that do not fit into our world view. In the case of climate change, the solutions that aligned with people's world views were more persuasive than facts. For instance, when conservatives heard that nuclear energy was a solution to climate change, they were more ready to accept global warming as a problem. If limiting omissions was posited as a solution, they were less likely. One solution fit with their values and worldview, another conflicted.

On climate change, immigration, criminal justice, poverty, or any other issue, start with the values. Find areas of conceptual common ground, and build your case there. You’ll find that people are much closer to your thinking than you realized.